September 8, 2011

Guest Post: OCD in YA Literature

I'm happy to welcome Ashley from Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing to the blog today for a Psychtember guest post on OCD! This is a shortened version, so to read her full-length post, go to her blog here.

This is a big enough topic, and one that I've been thinking about long enough that I've actually decided to write two posts on this one- one here on Danya's blog, and then a longer, more detailed (and more rantish) post on my own blog.

First, I want to begin by very briefly explaining what an OCD is. And then I can tell you why it's current usage is so bothersome to me.

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is comprised of two parts; Obsession, constant, irrational and uncontrollable thoughts that you know are irrational but are still unable to control or stop and Compulsion, the action you take to rid yourself of the anxiety caused by these thoughts. For example, compulsive handwashing might relieve you of the anxiety of believing yourself to be unclean. There must be both an obsession and a compulsion, and it must be something that is disruptive to your life- the handwashing makes your skin crack and bleed, checking the lock so often makes you late for work, etc. An OCD is not a small thing, it is not an 'inconvenience'. It's is debilitating and can be very frightening.

Right now, I feel like OCD is a popular issue to give a character in YA literature. I get very frustrated by the general public's idea of OCD, like it's something to joke about- Ooh, someone likes their closet organized by color. That by itself is not an OCD. I am also incredibly frustrated by the idea that it's not really serious, that it's just this weird thing some people do, but if they don't really want to, they can skip it sometimes. It's not like brushing your teeth, where you can skip a night (eww) but you really, really shouldn't. It's an anxiety disorder, which means that they have to do these things, all the time. They don't get to skip, or pass, or just decide to do it some other time. Their compulsions are what take their severe anxiety away. They can't just not do them.

I am also seriously upset by this idea that OCD is an 'acceptable' mental illness to have, especially in a main character or a love interest. Because, we definitely wouldn't want to have a person fall in love with a schizophrenic, or someone who suffers from a dissociative identity disorder! But OCD is 'ok', because it's not that big of a deal. Right?


An OCD should not be the main bit of depth for your main character or your main love interest. Taking an otherwise absolutely perfect character and giving them an OCD so that they are 'flawed' or 'relateable' is, a cop-out, cheating the character and the reader out of real depth but it's also wrong. It's taking something that is a serious mental health problem for so many people and ultimately making light of their disorder so that this hero or heroine can be more interesting. And that is wrong. No matter how great the rest of the book is, using a mental illness to create a more interesting character is not okay.

I don't have a problem with using mental illness in a story. There are plenty of books that do it well, both with OCD and with many other mental illnesses. But you can tell. You can tell when an author really takes the time to research the topic, to really understand the illness before giving it to their character and those authors that just did a quick Google search to get the basics. It shows. 

In a nutshell, what I'm getting at here is that it makes me a little sick and a lot mad every time I see a character given an OCD as a quick and easy way to add character depth or a little something interesting to an otherwise perfect or boring character, or to see it used as a way to be all 'progressive' and have a love interest with a (gasp) mental illness. Stop and think about what that says to those who have an OCD. And then think about the misconceptions you are perpetuating to the general population. And this really applies to all mental illness, not just OCD. So step away from the Google search, do some real research, and try treating it with a little more seriousness and a lot more respect. 

Ashley has been fascinated by the mind since before she can remember and decided long before college that Psychology would be her field of study. She received a BS in Psychology and is currently deciding where it should take her next. Ashley would like it to be made clear that she is not an expert in the field, and that the thoughts and feelings expressed are hers derived from both academic and personal study and experience.  

Thanks for giving us your thoughts on this important topic, Ashley!

Readers — what do you think about how OCD is portrayed in YA lit? Have you seen it being used simply to give a character more "depth"?


  1. Out of all the mental disorders I know, OCD is probably the most popular one for characters to have in YA. I think part of the reason is that the symptoms can be so varied but also there's this perception that it's not that serious as compared to other mental disorders. Even in public, just being really neat or orderly can cause people to make jokes about OCD. What most people don't realize is that it's a very serious disorder that requires those who are affected to get psychiatric help and is often comorbid with other disorders like ADD or depression.

  2. I just discovered this blog. I'm a social worker, so it's great to see you addressing psychological/mental health issues here. A lot of clinical diagnoses become mainstream terms that people joke about, and OCD is one of them. It starts to take on a new meaning - simply describing a personality trait or habit, rather than the very serious, life-interfering, problem it can be. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful piece
    I do get frustrated when they try to make something as serious as OCD cute. It's not. and I do think there is a line between maybe being a bit anal and liking things a certain way and having an actual compulsion to do something where you can't help yourself.

    That can't be cute.


    Anyway, awesome post

  4. I think it is portrayed really well in some books, like Kissing Doorknobs. I specifically did a huge research paper on anxieties, and part of it was using six books on the topics, I focused in on OCD by reading Kissing Doorknobs, which is a really accurate portrayal and none of the "oh its cute" or something like that. I like that is a topic in lit so people can sort of realize it is an actual issue.


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